My favourite voice in Tamil film music
By V Ramnarayan
|Art by S Sankaranarayana|
His was a voice I liked way more than other voices in Tamil film music. In the 1960s when I first heard him, it came as a gust of fresh air in the midst of the strong tones of TMS, the unorthodox ones of Chidambaram Jayaraman and Tiruchi Loganathan, the nasal AL Raghavan and the slightly effeminate AM Raja. His was a likeness of Talat Mahmood, but somehow more resonant, if Talat fans will forgive me. In fact, PB Srinivas’s was my favourite voice in Tamil film music.
I first heard him in Paadai Teriyudu Paar and Aval Yaar, in which he sang the unforgettable Tennankeetru oonjalile and Naan tedumpothu nee odalama. He followed these during the heyday of A Bhim Singh-Viswanathan Ramamoorthi-Sivaji Ganesan, with his memorable numbers for Gemini Ganesan. I will not catalogue all his famous songs, but will of course mention the evergreen Ninaippadellam from Nenjil Oor Alayam.
What was special about PBS’s voice? It was a silken voice, unaffected and untramelled by artifice—an apparently trained voice, conversant with the nuances of raga music. I don’t know if he ever trained to be a classical musician, but he seemed so, the thousands of songs he composed in a variety of ragas more than sufficient proof of his knowledge of classical music. He was also obviously a linguist, so many languages did he compose and sing in.
From his stylish singing, I always assumed him to be a stylish person, and indeed some photographs I saw of him in his youth seemed to indicate an elegant, modern kind of person. When I, like many other regulars at Woodlands Drive-in restaurant started seeing him spending entire days there, surrounded by his unruly bundles of paper, composing away unmindful of the crowd, taking a break only when some admirer walked across to chat with him, I was slightly surprised to find him veering more and more towards almost ceremonial expressions of orthodoxy in his clothes and appurtenances. I don’t say this in disapproval—I have no right to—but disappointed that his appearance did not match my mental image of him. His commitment and volume of output were extraordinary. Here was a true karmayogi in full view (and unmindful) of an admiring, often intrigued public.
PBS was a complete rasika whose pleasure in listening to good music, especially Hindustani, he liked to share with fellow listeners, and sometimes the artist of the evening. I was present at two vocal concerts by Shantanu Bhattacharya during last year’s music season (or was it early 2013?) The first was at the Narada Gana Sabha mini hall, where the musician acknowledged PBS’s presence in the auditorium with reverence. The second concert was a private affair in Gandhinagar involving the climbing of a steep and winding staircase, which the indefatigable PBS negotiated without a second thought. He was ecstatic at the end of the concert and paid a handsome tribute to the young musician.
It was only long after Woodlands Drive-in was snatched away from us that I gathered the courage to walk up to him one evening to introduce myself as editor of Sruti. This was at the other open-air Woodlands cafeteria—at Narada Gana Sabha. I expressed my desire to feature him in the magazine and promised to call on him soon. He was kind enough to agree. Unfortunately, I kept postponing the visit thanks to other commitments, and now it is too late. Not only did I not do the story personally, it did not even occur to me to ask Vamanan, who has done major profiles for Sruti, of musicians involved in films, and who is working on a PBS biography, to do it. Vamanan will still hopefully write a tribute to PBS for us, but I am kicking myself for not making it happen in PBS’s lifetime.